Photograph by Linda Greene

Progressive activists took to the streets of Detroit during the U.S. Social Forum in June. These women are getting ready for a march on the city's trash incinerator, which is the largest in the world.

Editor's note: Bloomington Alternative contributor Linda Greene participated in last month's U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. What follows are some of her observations from the experience.

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"This is what democracy looks like!" is a familiar chant at progressive marches and rallies. The second U.S. Social Forum (USSF), held in Detroit on June 22-26, put the chant into practice. Some 15,000 activists of all colors and kinds gathered for what the USSF Web site billed as a "U.S. movement-building process."

"It is not a conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples' solutions to the economic and ecological crisis," the Web site says. "The USSF is the next most important step in our struggle to build a powerful, multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational, diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and changes history."

Progressive activists, the Web site asserts, must make known how they want the world to look and must start planning how to achieve that vision, the site says. "The USSF provides spaces to learn from each other's experiences and struggles, share our analysis of the problems our communities face, build relationships, and align with our international brothers and sisters to strategize how to reclaim our world."

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There were 1,000 workshops over five days, and choosing which ones to attend was not for the indecisive or timid. In fact, a quick look at the 120-page program book could be overwhelming. For every workshop a participant would choose to attend, there were dozens of equally tempting ones at the same time. They covered diverse issues that fell under 14 categories or "tracks":

  • Capitalism in crisis;
  • Climate justice: sustainability, resources and land;
  • Democracy and governance;
  • Detroit and the rust belt;
  • Displacement, migration and immigration;
  • Endless war: militarization, criminalization and human rights;
  • Indigenous sovereignty;
  • International solidarity and responsibility: building a unified response to global crisis;
  • Media justice, communications and culture;
  • Organizing a labor movement for the 21st century: crisis and opportunities;
  • Strategies for building power and ensuring community needs (housing, education, jobs, clean air);
  • To the left: building a movement for social justice: intersections and alliances across race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability;
  • To the right: internationally and domestically; and
  • Transformative justice, healing and organizing.
  • ***

    Tuesday, the first day of the forum, opened with a march -- feeling more like an exhilarating parade, with a full marching band -- and opening celebration.

    The USSF, a gathering of activist organizations and individuals with justice on their minds, is all about change and action. Many demonstrations enlivened the forum. For instance, the Congress of Day Laborers of New Orleans marched -- "Money for housing, not for war!" -- from that city to Detroit from April 4 to June 21, stopping at 27 locations along the way.


    Photograph by Linda Greene

    Impromptu protests also broke out during the five-day forum, such as this one at Detroit's Cobo Hall.

    Participants rallied to stop Detroit Edison's electricity shut-offs at the homes of low-income people, those with disabilities and the elderly.

    A march took place "to redeem Aiyana's dream" in homage to 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was killed by police during a raid of her Detroit home.

    Faith activists at the USSF led a protest against JP Morgan Chase, calling on the bank to institute a moratorium on foreclosures in Michigan and sever its ties with tobacco company R.J. Reynolds, which refuses to meet with the Farm Labor Organization Committee to discuss farm workers' slave-labor working conditions of in North Carolina.

    Another demonstration supported workers' rights at the Andiamo restaurant in Dearborn.

    Some participants created an AIDS "die-in" in the crowded, block-long Cobo Hall during a lunch hour.

    Other activities were plentiful. Participants held a world court on poverty in the United States for the "disappeared in America." The Poverty Working Group and the Poor People Economics Human Rights Campaign, the largest antipoverty organization in the country that's led directly by poor and homeless people, set up a "poverty tent," and others held a "poverty summit."

    As CODEPINK said in an e-mail, the organization said farewell and "good riddance to a symbol of a gas-guzzling, terror-fueling era and hello to green jobs and renewable energy" by burying a Hummer.

    The USSF's art gallery displayed artworks throughout the forum, and 42 outdoor musical performances took place.

    The USSF hosted a progressive film festival and "creativity lab." There were a bike project, mural painting and urban gardening/outdoor classroom.

    An area was dedicated to people aged 13-24 "to lift up youth power, youth voice and youth space."

    Forum participants went on four social history tours of Detroit -- cultural immersion, social history, abolition and environmental justice -- or take part in the people's media center, which was open to everyone, not just the press, during the forum.

    Child care was available, even for infants. Children could play and learn about social justice at the children's art village.

    On the next-to-last night of the forum the Leftist Lounge went into action, with five venues featuring bands and dance floors. It was billed as the world's largest people's party and went on till 3 a.m.

    ***

    The forum ended with a march and rally of about 500 people and national people's movement assembly. The slogans of the march were "good jobs, clean air, justice for all," and the demonstration aimed to protest Detroit's trash incinerator, the largest in the world, which people have been trying to shut down for years. Operated by Covanta, the incinerator is sited, as is usually the case, in an African American, working-class neighborhood; causes elevated rates of cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease; and impoverishes the community. The City of Detroit shut down its recycling program to supply fuel (trash) for the incinerator.

    On the way to the incinerator the march halted to watch participants plant flowers and fruit trees in front of an elementary school that's about two blocks from the incinerator.

    Every evening focused, for two-and-a-half hours, on a "plenary discussion" for all forum participants on four topics: from Detroit to national; from national to international: the effects of neoliberal policies at home and abroad; and alternatives and solutions.


    Photograph by Linda Greene

    The Detroit trash incinerator's smokestack rises in the upper right as USSF protesters rally.

    Over three days, 50 people's movement assemblies took place, each one on a different issue, such as ecological justice; queer people's assembly; the collapse of empire, the future of community: jobs, food, money and energy; end corporate rule, legalize democracy, move to amend the Constitution; organizing to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

    In keeping with the forum's commitment to participatory democracy, each assembly made decisions from the ground up: the participants read a draft resolution as a whole group, modified the resolution in small groups and then resumed meeting as a whole group to approve the resolution.

    On the last day of the forum, the national people's movement assembly culminated the lively discussions and debates at the people's movement assemblies. It consisted of a reading of the 50 resolutions that arose from the smaller assemblies and a discussion about a final, comprehensive document outlining the forum's vision, goals and principles. A closing celebration followed.

    ***

    Though it was in a public place, the USSF had a safe and nurturing atmosphere. Gay and lesbian couples felt comfortable walking hand in hand and arm in arm, and people felt free to converse with one another in their native languages.
    "Progressive activists, the Web site asserts, must make known how they want the world to look and must start planning how to achieve that vision."
    The mood of the forum was joyous and exuberant, thanks mainly to the young people, who constituted the majority of the participants and demonstrated extraordinary political savvy and energy.

    One common assumption that underlay most of the discussions was that capitalism doesn't work for the people. Participants looked toward the future and new, truly democratic forms of government in the spirit of the USSF's slogans: Another world is possible! Another U.S. is necessary! Another Detroit is happening!

    Though the USSF was a stimulating and inspiring experience, it doesn't mean that the grassroots organizations and actions that follow it around the country will automatically carry on its principles and workings. As activist Bill Fletcher observed on The Black Commentator:

    "The USSF represents a wonderful safe space for exchanges. It was something of an oasis in a political desert. But as with many an oasis, the caravans arriving and sharing the space are not necessarily going in the same direction when they depart. In that sense, the USSF does not replace the need for an alternative political project that can advance many of the visions that were proposed in Detroit, but advance them with the intent that they become the guiding views of a truly civilized, post-capitalist society."

    Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.